David Hale: There’s nothing to compare
Once a week, I drive to Grand Junction to teach two classes in philosophy at Colorado Mesa University. Driving back and forth between the two very different cultures of Aspen/Snowmass and Grand Junction/Grand Valley area allows me a unique perspective.
Grand Junction is a desert environment, populated with generally regular folks — mostly blue color/working class, with a fair share of retirees and of homeless people.
In contrast, Aspen is a mountain environment, destination resort, peopled by short-term visitors, well-to-do long-term visitors, ski bums, capitalists, opportunists, superstars, influencers (whatever) and some rare locals.
I often get the impression that people I’m acquainted with in Grand Junction think I am wealthy. (Put hilarious laughing emoji here.) Isn’t Aspen the town where there are no houses listed under $20 million? Where the airport runs out of parking for all the private jets, and boutiques sell handbags for ten thousand dollars a pop?
Yep, it’s true. As a humble contractor, some of the people I work for are very wealthy. And, some of my neighbors are also very well-off. One of them actually sports a private jet. Super nice guy; we go out to dinner with him every summer.
Does that make me feel rich? No. Actually, it makes me feel dirt-bag poor — if I compare myself to him. And, therein lies the rub: comparing yourself to others, whether they be the homeless of Grand Junction or the rich and famous of Aspen.
Comparing oneself to others has never been a good idea. There are various religious texts that have a lot to say about this.
Let’s start with an ancient Buddhist work, the Dhammapada. It’s a collection of sayings of Gautama Siddhartha Buddha, who lived sometime around 500 BC. Many of the texts speak of “clinging to nothing,” and “calling nothing our own.” Chapter 16 states: “Those who hold nothing dear and have nothing have no fetters.”
Thinking you have something in comparison to the homeless — or nothing compared to your neighbor with the private jet — doesn’t really gain you anything.
The Bhagavad Gita, one of the foundational texts of what is called Hinduism, was written somewhere between 200 BC and 200 AD. It also speaks to the issue of nothing versus something. It calls this world of material manifestation maya, or illusion; all of existence (prakriti) is an illusion.
A later arrival on the scene is Shantideva’s The Way of the Bodhisattva, another Buddhist work written sometime in the 8th century AD. Shantideva goes so far as to say we are nothing because we have no self. This also signifies the difference between Hinduism and Buddhism. Hinduism teaches a god-self — the atman — whereas Buddhism teaches that we don’t have a self because we are nothing. Nothingness, or sunyata, becomes a major teaching in later Buddhism (Zen, Pure Land, Mahayana, Tibetan, etc.).
The Bible has more than a few words on this issue, as well. In the New Testament, we find James 4:14 asking the question, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” Then, there are the words of Jesus (Matt 7:25): “Do not be anxious about your life, what you eat or what you drink, not about your body, what you put on it. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?”
Any kind of self-satisfaction we might get because we have more stuff as compared to others (the homeless) or dissatisfaction we might get because we have less stuff (private jets, $10,000 handbags) is really about letting yourself get wrapped around material things.
Our neighbors, Clint and Kate, lost their house and two parents in a catastrophic fire last month. (See the story by Rick Carroll in the July 27 issue of The Aspen Times.) The photo of them sitting together holding hands — still recovering from a devastating tragedy yet smiling into the camera — said it all.
It’s not material things that mean the most in life. It’s the intangible things, like love and relationships. Clint and Kate are homeless now, but, I’ll bet they have something that a lot of people would gladly trade a house for.
David Hale earned a Joint Ph.D. from the University of Denver and the Iliff School of Theology in Philosophy, Religion and Cultural Theory. He is a lecturer in philosophy at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, where he teaches two classes a semester. His dissertation was solicited and published under the title of Of Nomadology: Religion and the War Machine. He lives in Snowmass, where he works full time as a contractor and lives with his wife, Susan, dog-child Bodhi, and two cats, White Kitty and Black Kitty.